Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Numbering the people on a white elephant

More information about the national ID card scheme was revealed last week, & cards are soon to be issued to people from outside the European Economic Area. This seems quite sensible, provided all the disparate schemes can be brought together without mishap, since it will replace some 50 separate paper documents which are used at present

The details of how the scheme will apply to British citizens remain hazy however.

Those working in sensitive roles or locations, starting with airport workers, will ‘start’ to get them next year.

From 2010 they will start to be issued voluntarily to young people “to assist them in proving their identity as they start out their independent life in society

In 3 years time “we shall start to enrol British citizens at high volumes offering a choice of receiving a separate identity card, passport or both

The details published in the press suggest that the card (for British nationals) will have picture, name, sex, date & place of birth, nationality, issue & expiry date, 2 finger prints & a unique national identity registration number

The fingerprint details will be of no use to anybody who wishes to check the card but does not have the equipment to check the fingerprint of the person standing in front of them.

It is also admitted that fingerprints will not work for the 4 million people over 75, presumably because of thinning of the skin. No doubt there will be others for whom they will not work either, espcially if the two fingers to be recorded are specified in the regulations

The other information is no different from that given on most other plastic cards

This all seems just a very expensive way to give us all a unique national identity registration number, to add to the 2 (completely unrelated numbers) we already have for National Insurance & the NHS

Something of this sort has quite often been put forward over the years by those charged with that most basic of statistical tasks, counting the population

But, given the uncoordinated, hit & miss kind of way the identity cards will be issued, & the uncertain timetable, they seem unlikely to be of any help in this statistical task in the near future – indeed will merely add to the confusion & argument.

Related post

Fighting the last war

I wonder who, a quarter of a century hence, will be the JK Galbraith of the Great Panic of 2008?

Military historians often conclude that an unsuccessful general is the one whose tactics & strategy are designed to win the last war, who fails to take account of the changed conditions of battle today

Our future economic historian may conclude that out mistake was to fight too hard against the problem of inflation – in current goods & services – and its evil half-brother, stagflation, caused in part by failures of investment

So our policy makers failed to spot the dangers of inflation in asset prices, foolishly mistaking it for wealth which could be invested


Monday, September 29, 2008

The Paradoxes of Fate

This one seems apposite for today

Fate is the choosing
without the knowing
That the choice is proving
you to be
What you already are.

Fate is deciding
without the thinking
That this deciding
will prove you to be
What you have chosen.

And this choosing
that knows nothing
Is itself the proving
of what you will be.

And you will be
what fate has proven
From what you are.
For fate unknowing
Knows what is chosen.

And you will choose
what fate is proving.

Oh my aching back

According to the British Chiropractic Association, half of us now suffer from backache & the number is increasing by 5% each year

As usual our lifestyle is blamed

Yes, but our ‘lifestyle’ used in the old fashioned magazine sense of household furnishing & decoration.

We are, increasingly, Brobdignagians living in a world designed by Lilliputians. Always having to bend forwards or down when we should stand up straight

Sinking ships

I do not know quite what to make of the widespread popular reaction to the US bail-out plan. While it is easy to feel sympathy for the lack of sympathy towards fat cats, spivs & arrogant money men, the lack of understanding of how we all depend on there being a working financial system is scary. Let us hope that the politicians have the strength & courage to do their best to steady the ship in the storm

Not that politicians (&, by extension, most of us voters) do not share the blame. The belief in property owning democracy, without understanding that that also means in most cases a mortgage owing democracy; the push for banks to provide financial services for all; forcing young people into debt to finance their education

Refusal to countenance the idea of paying for a service which makes cash readily available at all hours on demand; loving the ease of paying by debit card. Flashing the plastic credit card, a keep the change insouciance about small purchases … See how we all depend on it?

Not that this means that I think the money men have merely been applying their mighty brainpower to respond to these demands solely out of the goodness of their hearts & a sense of community spirit

Some of their insouciance beggars belief. I read at the weekend a report about bond insurance, which pays out in the event of the issuing company going down. Trouble is, bond insurance contracts known as credit default swaps (CDS) were traded in the market. Hedge funds have bought a lot of these as investments & “had never expected to have to pay out” Huh? Why not? Did they just think that this was an old style money for nothing Lloyds Name trick?

Related post: House prices

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Medical foresight

The first Model T Ford rolled off the assembly line of the Piquette Plant in Michigan on September 28 1908

"I have seen the future, and it is - a motor car!" said Toad of Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, first published in October 1908

But, by then, British doctors were already warning of the evils of the motor car - Plus ca change

The loan of life

This poem was published in the Christmas 1992 edition of The Spectator – an odd choice for the time of year, though there was a recession going on

It does not really count as a favourite poem - I came across it in the box of papers I was sorting last weekend, so it obviously affected me enough to want to clip it

If it is true that our desire
brings misery, if to be human
is to desire, then the only way
is to desire nothing.

If death is the debt we all pay,
how precious the loan of life becomes.
Almost as precious as death.

To have the door slammed on us
by our own hand
is to know the last horror of time.

What e call purity
lives in the eyes of animals.
Reality which strikes us
as a revelation
is always joyous, holy,
and simple as grass.

Philip Callow: Meditation

Related post: Help wanted

Saturday, September 27, 2008

OD job

My eye was caught by an advert for a Director of HR and OD

Well, I know what HR is, but OD?

Very unfortunate association of ideas since the job involves providing “innovative & dynamic professional leadership & strategic direction to the … OD agenda” in a hospital

No specific qualifications are required, just the usual track record, visionary leadership, communication skills, blah, blah, blah

I do hope that the candidate is not really expected to have an intimate knowledge of drugs both prescribed & recreational

Towers of cards

Songbird Estates, which develops & leases property in the financial enclave of Canary Wharf, saw a drop of almost 10% in the value of its portfolio in the first half of this year

14% of Songbird's revenue came from rent paid by Lehman

But payment is guaranteed for another 4 years through an arrangement with AIG

So that’s all right then

A good time to borrow

The government has now given emergency funding of £1 billion - to local councils to help meet the £3 billion bill for equal pay settlements

Not that the government is handing out cash – of course not. Local authorities a free to borrow or to sell assets

Shepherds delight

I was standing at the bus stop at about 7 o’clock last night when it suddenly dawned on me – impinged upon my consciousness – that I was looking at a red sky. At night

How long is it since we had one of those?

There was some lowish, mostly stratus cloud, criss crossed by narrow contrails, and the sky was covered by a high mist which glowed, like back lit gauze on a stage. And these striations of orangey pink

The mood has stayed with me. I did not even have to make sure I caught a weather forecast on local radio this morning to tell me what I could wear

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ministerial resignation

I think I am inclined to take Ruth Kellys resignation at face value

She is, after all, 40, an age at which mostbody reassess their life. That is, if they have not already done so at 35. In my youth I happened to be an assistant (& share an office with) to two men in succession who reached that milestone; they both definitely went quite funny for a bit as they came to terms with the fact that they were past the halfway mark to their three score years and ten.

I suppose it is inevitable that spending more time with one’s family should be taken as a women’s issue – men give this only as a cover up reason. But plenty of Cabinet ministers have found either that they are not up to the job or that it is not up to them, & by the nature of things the vast majority of them have been men

Think of the procession of heir-to-Thatcher blue eyed boys who fell to earth; the captains of industry who found Westminster politics not to their taste; Lord Gowrie, who could not live in London on £30,000 a year …

It is a punishing life – I remember one man, seasoned in both politics & business, who, a few months after his appointment, asked his Private Secretary if all ministers had to work so hard. Add to that four pregnancies in less than 10 years, two homes 200 miles apart …

In truth Ruth Kelly did not seem to be a very good politician, certainly not one of Cabinet rank. She failed to master the House of Commons, & her performance over HIPS was lamentable (perhaps she did not believe in them either).

The only people I have heard express real regret at her going both worked for her. But even they make her sound as if she would be better in a senior position in industry, or chairing a quango, or even being a senior civil servant. She reminds me of the criticism of Virginia Bottomley over the reform of the London teaching hospitals – ‘She’s treating it like a technical problem & ignoring the politics

And here perhaps lies one of those things where women ‘tend to’ differ from men. I noticed it in my career. A professional disagreement arises, eventually there has to be a high-level meeting to decide whose method or estimate to accept. If the victor is a man, his reaction is ‘I won’. If a woman ‘I hope I am right.’ Sometimes you have to give less than the ‘right’ answer in order to get things through in politics - that is what ministers are there for

Even the manner her going she seems to see solely as personal & private, had not thought to get together with her political allies to work out how to wring maximum advantage from it

Related posts

Act of God?

On August 31 there was what sounds like a frightening but little-reported incident in Surrey

A cloudy morning, a man sees a ginormous red ball hanging in the air

Then came a blinding flash. Pictures fell off walls, a fir tree was sundered, a gardener was enveloped in an intense flash ‘shimmering all over’, there was widespread damage to computers, tv & security systems in the nearby block of flats

Now, while ufologists may have their own views, I think most people will believe that there is a more mainstream scientific explanation for this, despite the fact that, according to Paul Simons we do not know what that is

In other words, despite the noisy admonitions of Dawkins & friends, science is what we believe in

Related post

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why be fair?

The row over whether or not to allow cancer patients to pay for their own drugs while still receiving NHS care brings in to sharp relief the question of the value of a life

NICE in some sense decides whether the value of the extra time gained offsets the cost of the drug – in the context of how much we, collectively, are willing to pay for through our taxes.

But individuals have their own estimate of the value (to them) of their own life; some can, somehow, raise the money to pay for this from their own funds or via family & friends. Others fight hard against their local Primary Care Trust, involve their MP, go to the press

We do not hear from those who accept the valuation (maybe even think it an over-valuation of a life of pain or misery)

And so we get an overestimate of the value which individuals place on their life

Related post
Discounted lives

Miss Marple & the credit crunch

The credit crunch is, oddly, linked in my mind to Agatha Christie

Not because of any one of her mysteries, but because I first heard of the world of securitisation, deals over ownership of future income streams & such like through an arrangement she came to with the Booker company in the 1960s

In those days the tax system worked to the disadvantage of authors who received their income through advances which were treated as taxable in the year in which they were paid. Thus the tax take was higher than it would be if the money were treated as accruing over the time it took to write the book

Lord Jock Campbell, the Chairman of the Booker group, was keen to diversify away from the company’s dependence on sugar. One idea he came up with was to buy up Agatha Christies copyrights; in return the author received a regular, predictable annual income stream

I believe Ian Fleming did a similar deal

All this was before Lord Campbell had the idea of instituting the Booker prize

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Guyana Not Ghana

I love this evocative poem by Marc Matthews, with its rich recitation of the things that remind him of home

Thinking about it, evocation is an important element of the work of many Guyanese writers - Pauline Melville, Roy Heath, Edgar Mittelholzer, Martin Carter. Or thinking about it even further, of most writers from the Eastern Caribbean - including Nobel prize winner Derek Walcott

Buxton, Fyrish, Cove-an-John, Bush Lot, Mahaica,
no, ah said Guyana, not Ghana.

Pompeii, Tanta d`oux, Bhagwandeen car for hire
Sai John, Saturdee night, sweet shop, gas light,
shinin on shame-face in de trench water.
No, ah said, Guyana, not Ghana.

Black puddin, corn pone, swank, cuss-cuss an sugar
jinghi seeds, back-dam mettagee,

buxton spice, no mango sweeter
when you eat passion fruit don’ drink wine nor water
is in Buxton, ah say, de first girl ah love,
five years old; she was from Africa

Pass Plaisance? ah ask, no, she say, further
Georgetown was far

she say pass dat
days an nights she spen’ on de water
Africa to de Brazilian border
ah believe her

Pardon, said de English school teacher
I was dreaming of las’ lick, jamoon, rum and coconut water

to John Bull potagee daughter
ah said: Guyana could a’been Africa
but for Brazil and a heap o’ water.
No, ah said, Guyana, not Ghana

I was intrigued by the existence of a town called Buxton - could there be a Derbyshire connection?

Well, only a distant one, if that

Buxton, Guyana was named in honour of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton who piloted the bill for the Emancipation of Slaves through the House of Commons. He was a member of one of those great East Anglian Quaker families who did so much for 19th century social reform.

Robert Crampton picked up on this point recently:

Cadbury, Rowntree, Fry's, Clarks shoes, Barclays bank, Huntley & Palmers, the great state of Pennsylvania, Oxfam, Greenpeace, all set up in whole or in part by Quakers, they've got to have something going for them

Related posts:

Winter woolies

The tank top really has made a comeback. Primark has lots

I have been trying hard to remember if I kept one in particular, an interesting Fair Isle pattern knitted by my own fair hands. It struck me that it must be a particularly cosy garment since it essentially has 2 layers of double knitting wool, a godsend to a Raynauds sufferer in a hard winter

I never knitted purely for pleasure. But in my youth home made clothes offered both superior materials (if not workmanship) at lower cost than anything you could buy even in C&A (the Primark of its day). All that changed sometime in the 70s, & now you would expect the cost of materials alone to be greater than the cost of almost any High Street garment

Which makes me realise that it cannot be just the low labour costs, over which there is so much agonising, that accounts for the rise of the clothing industry in the Far East. Technology & economies of scale, land prices & taxes must be even more important, since for the home dressmaker the cash cost of labour is zero

Someone to watch over me

There were police on duty at Manchester Central Library yesterday

Not just outside at the security cordon for the Labour conference

I counted 7 inside before I got as far as the first floor. There was even a policewoman on patrol in the Language & Literature section; at least she gave me a friendly reassuring smile

But I did not stay long, it made me feel uncomfortable

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Womens work

I was right that some people were looking forward to hard times:

Part of me found the events of last week strangely invigorating. It wasn’t just the sense that the disaster we had all been waiting for had finally happened, but the potential for aesthetic & spiritual renewal. The idea that we are all about to leave behind our bad consumerist ways & embark on a commercial detox feels somehow exciting

Austerity Therapy Times2 22 September 2008

I am going to link this with the report that the proportion of women among new appointments as secondary school heads declined last year, and with an earlier report from the Equality Commssion that the number of women at the highest levels of business & politics has also declined

Put the three together, make an enormous leap, & discern the beginning of a trend

More women have decided that the game is not worth the candle & are reverting to their traditional role - tidying up the mess, binding up the wounds & kissing it all better

Related post

Just for show

I must have been 8 or 10

My mother had a piece of news which she related over tea when we came home from school: she had seen a lady riding in the back of a chauffeur driven car

Obviously a unique event in our small 1950s country town

I however was puzzled by the strangely inverted construction

Why did she not just say ‘ a car driven for show’

Related post:

You've got to laugh

I was sorting through a box of old papers at the weekend when I came across these cartoons which were published by the Spectator during the recession of 1992/3

Comment would be nugatory

Click on image to enlarge

In the pink

Sarah Vine wrote a piece avowing her intention to carry on giving Calpol to her children despite the asthma scare

She refers to it as the pink peril, which reminded me of the old days, when people often emerged from the doctor’s surgery with a bottle of the pink medicine. Which may have been a mild tonic, or a kind & useful way of saying Let’s just wait & see

Or it may have had a powerful placebo effect

An intriguing pair of recent programmes on Radio 4 reported that (serious, scientific) research has established that the effects of pink placebo pills are different from those of the blue ones

And that placebo effects can be dose related: 2 pills good, 3 pills better

One thought provoking document I once came across while looking for something else was a WW2 Whitehall circular to doctors, asking them to be as sparing as possible in the dispensing a long list of imported substances because supplies were likely to run short. The list was surprising – I can only remember one name, tamarind, but all were of that ilk, no modern pharmaceuticals at all

It is so easy to forget how things used to be

When did the last chemist’s shop finally abandon the traditional window display of intriguingly shaped bottles of liquids of various hues labelled with mysterious abbreviations?

Were they all placebo, or is there really more to traditional wisdom than modern science allows?

Is it possible that Calpol works as much through placebo as through the chemical effect?

Which raises the intriguing question of cui bono.

Is it the mother or the infant who gets the benefit?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Nightingale tradition

The British Army has stuck to tradition by maintaining the post of Matron-in-Chief

But they moved with the times. Until last week the post was held by Colonel John Quinn, who has now been succeeded by Colonel Wendy Spencer

Unreliable web

There have been calls for kitemarking on the web, in case us poor users are misled by unreliable information all too freely available at the click of a mouse

I would have more sympathy than I do if I could easily gain access to sites which I have good reason to believe reliable, but many of these need an Athens number or demand money first – the British Medical Journal, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, anything in JSTOR … . There is no way the occasional visitor wants to afford all this

Public libraries help a lot by taking out subscriptions such as to the Times Archive & the Oxford English Dictionary, but there are limits

Help wanted

The Lord Mayor of London & the Lady Mayoress entertained members of the Financial Services Authority, representatives of Britain's financial services industry & other business leaders to dinner last week. Must have been a jolly occasion

Yesterday – 21st September – was the Day of St Matthew, patron saint of accountants, bankers & tax collectors

A good time for the Church of England to publish a prayer for the current financial situation on its website

An –ity bit of difference

There is a strong modern imperative to use the word person, not man, in any statement which is intended to apply to either sex

While I am no expert in how spoken English developed, it seems natural for English speakers to collapse human into man

There is a sense in which the male of the species loses out here – there is then no formal word which specifies unambiguously the adult male of the species

The argument becomes interesting when you consider the animal kingdom. ‘Dog’ is not gender specific, though there is a specifically female term. Horses can be different. Cows are (slightly) ambiguous

I have never felt happy about the supposedly inclusive nature of the word ‘person’

The problem comes from the abstract

Humanity is what we share

Personality is unique, fragmentary, fragmented

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The human continuum of space & time

I was lucky enough to go to a college which, even in those days, drew its students from many different countries, creeds & colours, for many of whom English was a second (or higher order) language. Any idea that to be white & English meant, ipso facto, intellectual superiority, would not have survived that, even had it been there in the first place

To find one has much in common with people of different backgrounds is not the real surprise. The real problem is to understand how the person next door, or someone in your family, who share your environment can think or feel so differently from you

It took longer to understand that people are people across time as well as space. The past may well be another country, but that does not mean the people were different

There is one small piece of evidence which sums this up for me. I cannot find a note, but I think it must come from A Leo Oppenheim’s (highly recommended) book Letters from Mesopotamia

I paraphrase from memory

Dear Mum,

Thank you for sending me the cloth for a new tunic. It is very nice

I am sorry you did not send enough to make 2 tunics. I know you have plenty of bolts of cloth under the bed, so you could have done easily

My friend John, his Mum sent him 2. And she’s not even his real mother – she only adopted him

The writer (in fact the letter would have been dictated to a scribe who would have impressed it onto a tablet of wet clay) was a boy, probably Phoenician, who had been sent to Egypt for training as a merchant

Setting an example

Sir Victor Blank, Chairman of Lloyds TSB & now HBOS has attracted the attention of the Press for his use of a chauffeur driven G-Wiz electric car

During the Three Day Week caused by the miners strike of 1974 I had to go to the Central Statistical Office (then part of the Cabinet Office) which occupied premises at the back of the Treasury building with its own entrance on St James’s Park

As I sat in the lobby awaiting my escort a mini drew up outside. From it emerged the very substantial figure of William Whitelaw, Secretary of State for Employment

He came in through this back door with an amazingly bouncy walk, exuding bonhomie & saying Good Morning to everybody, including me

The doorman told me that the car was owned by Whitelaw’s official driver & was being used to set a good example – although on this particular occasion the Minister obviously wished to avoid the attentions of the Press

Related post

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Swollen shires

There has been a rumpus over Rupert Maas, who used the phrase Shropshire ankles on tv to describe thick ones

There used to be a swelling called Derbyshire neck – in fact a goitre caused by lack of iodine in the water. Cerebos used to sell Table Salt in a special iodised form which was always used in our family

It seems to have disappeared entirely from the market now – I expect even ordinary Table Salt is banned now anyway

But where, I wonder, do we get our iodine from?

Perhaps Shropshire ankles indicated a similar local lack of a particular trace element which led to dropsy, poor circulation & swollen ankles

Dodgy times

Criminals have found a new scam for betting on the football & other sports

They take advantage of the relative shortness of the delay on a mobile phone compared with satellite tv to place bets on something which has already happened, such as the first offside ruling. A spotter in the ground texts the message to a bookmaker in a country which has only tv to rely on

I suppose it does not really count as a paradox that, the faster we can do things, the more critical become what would once have been unimaginably small delays

And to think that, until the railway came, people just lived by the sun's time

Raspberry vinegar

There is a suggestion that Calpol is associated with asthma or eczema in children, though the direction of causation has not been established

I have always been vaguely alarmed by the idea of giving paracetamol to infants (what about their livers?) probably because I was brought up by a mother who was very cautious about pills. Not in any extreme form – if they were prescribed we took them, & we had all our inoculations, unlike my best friend whose mother was vehemently against vaccination

Anyway, I was born before the NHS & all minor ailments were treated with traditional remedies – arrowroot for tummy upsets for example

There were various remedies for coughs & colds, depending on a fairly close analysis of the symptoms – head or chest, thick or runny

Raspberry vinegar was the remedy for tickly coughs & sore throats. I always longed to know if this was the same as the substance of that name which enjoyed a brief vogue as an essential ingredient of all fashionable cooking, available at all good diner parties

The Invalid's Own Book: A Collection of Recipes from Various Books by Mary Anne Boode Cust - 1853 - Cookery for the sick

Friday, September 19, 2008

Reasons to be cheerful

Radio 5 invited people to phone in with their reasons to be cheerful this morning. A very pleasant relief

The main message is that life always does go on. Unless or until something nasty comes very close to home, the seismic events may have very little effect on many, who have other things uppermost in mind

That indeed is one of the advantages of growing old – you know you have survived

I was marginally involved in the great devaluation crisis of 1967. I was not living in England, but we still had the Sterling Area, so many other countries were directly affected

A policeman came to our house late at night with the message (phones were rare – the police station had only radio contact with the capital) & a lot of hard work ensued. But really it seemed like only one small event in what was a time of personal change & adventure. What I remember most is that it made the arithmetic of conversions into $US much easier to do (no computers & precious few calculators then)

The other important point is that by no means everybody suffers. For many, especially those who can keep their jobs, life will continue with no more than its ordinary problems. And there are always those who gain

We tend to think of the 1930s as a time of unrelieved hardship (my own mothers family had to up sticks & move to where my grandfather could find work) – but when were most of those mock Tudor suburbs built? Who could afford to buy the houses?

Just lie back & think of …

Back in June/early July I was struck by the number of radio interviews I heard with powerful men – politicians, financiers, central bankers – who sounded plain scared. I had intended to name names, but my blogging activity was interrupted & to do so now would be egregious

Despite events I have not heard anybody sounding scared recently. Some seem just to be lying low, or at least not gracing the airways

Plenty of angry people have been interviewed

But otherwise people sound almost calm, if not in control then just recognising that really they can only just do their best, take each decision as it comes

Resigned to whatever fate may bring

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The repetition

I have been asked to summarise briefly my views on the Business & Financial Outlook for the year

Having got as far as September it looks now that we are in for a year which will be known as 2008

I am not sure that the whole financial & business structure on which our system is founded is not silly, with its billions of barrels & billions of derivatives & nothing to show for it

That is adapted from Robert Benchley in 1931 – 2 years after the Wall Street crash

Erica Wagner exhorts us now to read The Great Crash by JK Galbraith with ‘an eerie sense of déjà vu’

For some of us, it is a case of déjà lu

Did we deserve it?

Earlier this year I knew that the ground really had shifted when I heard that Halifax had stopped offering straight repayment mortgages, on the grounds that they were not profitable enough

I was going to write a nostalgia piece, but I could not find confirmation of the fact, so I just left it

Events now have certainly confirmed my feeling

Ever since childhood, the Halifax has meant respectability & security to me, learned by osmosis from a family who would not have dreamed of entrusting their hard earned savings to any one else

I still have the pass book I acquired when I was introduced as a customer by my father when I was 16. It was not my first encounter with financial services – I had had a Post Office account since I was 7 – but this was definitely a step into the world of grown ups finance

Not that I would want to return to that world. Apart from the fact that there was a vague feeling that you had to pass some kind of fit & proper person test to be a saver, you certainly had to jump through hoops to get a mortgage. To have been a saver with the society for a certain amount of time, to be holding a proper job, & have accumulated a 25% deposit. Only certain kinds of property would be considered – basically family homes, built in the 20th century.

The only alternative to a straight repayment might have been an endowment, but this was only worthwhile if you were father to a family who needed a guarantee that the roof would remain over their heads if Daddy died. The fact that so few children are left fatherless through mortality these days is just one more measure of how the world has changed

And for me, personally, there would have been next to no chance of getting a mortgage in my own right, at least until I had reached an age where I was clearly on the shelf, past child bearing, & had made the best of it by getting a good job in teaching. By the 1970s, more enlightened institutions might have started taking my income into account for a joint mortgage with my husband, but only at a multiple of 1, compared with his 2½ or 3. It took the Sex Discrimination Act to put women on an equal footing with men as far as house purchase went.

We would have expected to move perhaps once or twice, to accommodate a growing family or to reflect increased prosperity through career progression. Only people who were forced, for job reasons, expected to have to move more frequently. Nobody talked about what their house was ‘worth’, one worried about prices only as a measure of how much you needed in order to acquire a home of your own

Now that everybody is turning round & blaming the bankers, the finance industry, derivatives & rocket scientists for the current difficulties, it is important to remember how much we gained from these relaxations of ‘moral’ approaches to the provision of financial services

Related posts

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Who will claim Karl Marx?

The works of most of the great political philosophers of the past (even The Bible) have been claimed to support variously Left & Right.

It is not that Left & Right change their views – though they do: Thatcherite Free Market economics belonged to the dangerous Radicals of the 19th century, not the paternalistic landed Tories; in my life time the Common Market, under its various names, has gone from being seen as a capitalist conspiracy to an organisation for enforcing workers rights

That Matthew Parris should be paying close attention to Marxist thought in a recent Saturday column – albeit as a stick with which to beat current Labour policy – made me wonder if the time is not too far off when Das Kapital is seen as a Tory text

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Damien Hirst

I am sorry not to be able to see the Damien Hirst Auction collection. I should particularly like to see the Golden Calf, but even more to see the collection as a whole

The first time I saw any ‘live’ Hirst was in an exhibition at the Serpentine in the early 1990s, the very first piece a collection of pharmaceutical products in a white-shelved cabinet. Not tightly packed in alphabetical order as in a real life pharmacy, not jumbled as in a bathroom cabinet, but ‘artfully’ & individually arranged. They were not objects of beauty in themselves – some of the packets were old & battered – and not, to my eyes, overall a thing of beauty either

It crossed my mind that maybe it was supposed to be saying something about AIDS. This was, after all, not long after the grim tombstone Don’t Die of AIDS ads on the telly, & was reminiscent of the early 1980s, when AIDS was (as it says on the tin) thought to be a collection of rare diseases caused by the assaults on the immune system inflicted by an extreme ‘gay lifestyle’, the only treatment a pharmacopeia of drugs to deal with each symptom

For some reason, to do with some of the specific drugs included, I rejected that idea, & remained baffled

The other piece by Hirst in that exhibition was the sheep in formaldehyde – fortunately restored to view so soon after the ink attack. My emotional response was immediate – I loved it

It was so alive, the epitome of inquiring sheep. The colours – the formaldehyde looked blue, the creamy grey fleece thick & healthy, the black patches endearing

Some years later, when shown a very good black & white photo of a sheep on a snow-covered hillside, staring quizzically at the camera, I told the photographer that it looked just like Damien Hirst.” Oh – is that a compliment?” he asked

One very common response to the kind of bafflement that modern art can induce is “They are having us on.” I do not share that view, but after walking round Hirst’s sheep a couple of times I suddenly wondered if it could be a trick – some kind of optical illusion

The thought had something to do with the bevelled edges of the glass tank. These reminded me quite vividly of the introductory sequence to the Harry Worth comedy series on 1960s tv. Middle aged Harry, dressed in trilby & macintosh, stood at the angle of an old fashioned shop entrance, put his nose to the window edge & raised his left arm & leg in the air. The refraction made him look as if he was suspended above the ground in a star jump

So, could something like that be happening with the sheep - it wasn't real & 3-dimensional at all but just some kind of refracted picture?

I was on my own, taking advantage of a couple of hours to spare between appointments; courage failed me at the thought of asking complete strangers to help by looking at it simultaneously from several angles – necessary because the illusion, if such it was, artfully followed you as you moved around – like one of the Patrick Hughes paradoxical perspectives

Ultimately, the only interesting question about this is – does it matter? No, is the simple answer, without going through all that art (& life) is all illusion stuff, anyway

More prosaically, when I visited the gallery shop I saw a beautifully produced (in Berlin, if memory serves) small brown covered book of sketches/drawings by Hirst. The answer to those who ask Can he do proper art?

And one other abiding memory from that exhibition. Just near the sheep, leaning against the wall, was a battered bicycle festooned with plastic bags stuffed with stuff. Think eccentricity or homelessness

Not really my kind of thing. So why, as I stood there, did I feel a strong urge to take an ordinary plastic biro out of my handbag & add it to the collection? What was that all about?

Back to Hirst. I have seen 2 of his other works, both in the Tate. In their permanent collection they have another of his glass fronted cabinets, one containing exotic giant sea shells. This pleases me neither as might an exhibit in a museum, with labels giving interesting information, nor as a kind of decorative feature – too opulent & blowsy, not minimalist enough for my drawing room

The other was part of a temporary exhibition – the Mother & Child Divided. I was apprehensive going in – would I be nauseated & repulsed?

The first reaction was how peaceful it seemed

Second reaction was – look at the colours. I expected it to be just grey & tripe-y, not flashes of turquoise, pink, yellow, green, purple, black, blue on a creamy grey background

On this occasion I had the advantage of being in the company of a surgeon who pointed out that there was a fair bit of stitching involved – a flap folded back here, fastened down there, artful in its artlessness. Not just something anybody can do, saw a cow in half & plonk it in a tank

Somewhere around this time I went to an exhibition of Spanish art at the National Gallery. Some pictures were genre scenes of kitchens. It struck me how many of these included lovingly painted semi-prepared (decapitated or gutted) rabbits or fish, or anatomically detailed cuts of meat. Not so very different, after all, from the divided cow & calf

I have never seen one of Hirst’s dot/circle paintings live as it were, but in reproduction I am disappointed by the colours. There seems nothing to them, nothing like the zephyrs darting round one of Bridget Riley’s parallelogram pictures. Instead they call to mind Jonathan Meade’s brilliant observation: For Picasso, colour was just a found object. There is no Matisse-like connection to the emotion

It is extraordinary how popular & influential they are – I have even seen plates on sale in Woolworths. Somehow I doubt Hirst is at all put out by this, in the way that Bridget Riley was offended by the way she thought her black & white art was subverted by the Op Art of 1960s fashions

Hirst’s golden calf & diamond studded skull remind me a little of the fabulous golden items from Ancient Iraq, such as the Sumerian goat from Ur.

This impression might not survive live viewing, but it makes me wonder if his next ‘line’ might not be carved stone murals depicting the modern equivalent of Ashurbanipal (Russian oligarchs?) killing lions

"Damien Hirst once sued British Airways, claiming a breach of copyright over the coloured spots that it used in an advert for its low-cost airline, Go. I am surprised that Nestle didn't, in turn, sue him for nicking the design from its Smarties packet. because that is what his spot paintings look like"
Rachel campbell-Johnston, Times art critic

Rear view mirror

Lotto sales falling, said the headline

The story beneath did not support this assertion. Yes, sales fell by more than £100 million in 2007-08, but that does not mean they are still falling – the Olympic successes prompted lots of ‘The lottery is worthwhile’ kind of comments

This of course is always the problem with statistics. Using them to predict the future is, as someone once said, like trying to drive using only the rear view mirror – be it the future financial markets, population, climate change, whatever, we are trying to foresee

But it is all we can do for now

Until the day when all you can see in the mirror is a great big scary monster

Then we are into the realm of metaphysics – in a dark room (to mix the metaphor), blindfolded, looking for a black cat

Which may, or may not, be there

Related post: Is North up or down?

The price of a bag

I am curious about the financing – as opposed to the economics, green or otherwise - of the moves against supermarket plastic bags

Sainsburys offers 1 reward point for each bag you re-use at the checkout. I say offers advisedly, because in my experience this only gets added to your account on about 1 visit in 2. This is irritating, & hardly the sort of thing you want to make a fuss about or go to the customer complaints desk about. If you use your Reward points in the simplest possible way, to get a discount off some future bill at the checkout, each point is worth ½p. But how does this compare with the cost of a plastic bag?

Marks & Spencer do not seem to keep any old style plastic bags at all at the checkouts now (they do have small ones, which is often all that is needed). However, on Saturdays they are often giving away a free Bag For Life instead of charging 10p for one. Again, how do the costs work out?

How to rob a bank

I meant to post this whimsical quote from Robert Benchley a couple of weeks ago

On April 7, 1904, the vault in the Lazybones National Bank & Fiduciary trust of Illville, Illinois, was blown off, & if there had been anything in there worth taking away, it could easily have been done. As it was, the vault contained nothing but 100 shares of Goldman Sachs, & the robbers, instead of taking these, added 200 more shares of their own & made their getaway, leaving the bank stuck with 300 shares instead of 100

I was going to add that, in our day, the equivalent of shares in the mighty Goldman Sachs would be sub prime mortgage deeds

Now, I am not so sure

Monday, September 15, 2008

Slip of the pen

A nice slip of the pen in the tv listings for Tess of the D’Urbevilles

“Hardy obviously adored his heroine, even as he put her through the wrangler”

The writer is obviously too young to remember old fashioned wash-day & has mixed up his wringer with his mangle, & managed to cast aspersions on Cambridge mathematicians

Out of touch

The great majority of people – sitting down to their Sunday lunch today ...

So said the Chief Whip on Radio 4 news

It may be just one of those phrases – like blue rinse brigade - that summons up an image long departed from real life, it may even br true of the majority of Radio 4 listeners

Some might find it more akin to John Major’s spinsters on bicycles – nostalgic but out of touch with modern life

The boy David

David Miliband appeared on Gabby Logan’s Radio 5 show yesterday

He sounded the way people say he is – personable, articulate, reasonably intelligent & nice. At ease with the common touch & the banter – which have caught out Labour ministers before. He told how he had as a child been presented with a 5-a-side runner up medal by Gabby’s father

What he did not sound like is someone who is ready –yet – to be Prime Minister or even party leader. In any circumstances, but certainly not the present ones

He should wait

Remember Hague

The little woman

The Bishop of Bath & Wells has broken with tradition by including his wife in his official portrait

This however is no Gainsborough-esque portrait with the happy couple side by side in the foreground

Posing in what looks like a side chapel, the wife sits demurely in a niche in the wall behind her upright husband. She occupies about the same amount of space in the picture as does her husband’s arm

Though modestly dressed, it would have been shocking to some even 20 years ago that she should be wearing trousers in a house of God

The bishop, needless to say, is, while not sumptuously, symbolically arrayed in long-skirted purple cassock with a fine silver chest medallion

Sunday, September 14, 2008

More corn

“Will no one speak up for popcorn?” asked Giles Smith recently, when it was reported that some cinemas are banning the stuff

Well, I will - though not for the wilting gooey version in super-size-me bags, the profits from which are relied upon to keep some multiplexes in existence

Popcorn should be a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening treat for all the family

All you need is a bag of un-popped corn (surely available in all good supermarkets) & a good sized pan – preferably a heavy one, but certainly one with a tight fitting lid

Pour a little oil into the pan. Scatter corn so it covers the bottom in a single layer. Apply lid firmly. Put over the lowest possible heat

The noise, as the corn begins to pop, provides amusement for all the family. When it starts to subside, turn off the heat, but wait until you are certain the noise has stopped before lifting the lid

It is such a simple process, it could be left to the children – except that small boys particularly need close supervision. They find it hard to resist the temptation to remove the lid & cheer as corn bullets fly around the kitchen

We used to eat it with just a light sprinkling of salt, but I expect Demerara sugar would suit the sweeter tooth. Or perhaps some Indian spices, now chicken tikka is the national dish. Cumin, fennel or fenugreek (or even all 3 together) might work. I do not guarantee it, but since you will still have plenty of unpopped corn left in the bag, you could just bin the disaster & start again

For the scientifically minded family, the eating could be enlivened by a discussion of what makes popcorn pop, & how (if at all) this relates to what is currently going on under the Franco-Swiss border

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Paradoxical political economy

How strange that we are apparently reaching the end (for now) of Labour government, just as the West is comprehensively falling out with the capitalist idea that the market is always right

First we have Anatole Kaletsky writing about the nationalisation of Freddie Mac & Fannie Mae in The Times. Then on Any Questions yesterday a suggestion that all energy should be nationalised was greeted with cheers from the audience at Davison CE High School in Worthing, West Sussex, which does not sound the kind of place to be a hotbed of socialism. (Perhaps that is a kind of slur on rural areas – remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs)

Actually such turns of the wheel are nothing new. There is not even anything new in the idea that Americans are not nearly the believers in free enterprise & government keeping its nose out as they would like us to think

And when the 1850s & 1860s, (what we think of as the heyday of Thatcherite/Victorian free enterprise), were hit by a series of economic crises & banking failures, The Builder magazine pointed out that the Post Office offered a valuable lesson in how Government really knew how to run an efficient business, entirely free of corruption

How many more as?

A strange construction is creeping in – even BBC News uses it

Numbers are said to be ‘Twice as many THAN a year ago’

Is this a confused response to the Less than 5 items in the supermarket checkout debate?


The day they strung the cable from America to Europe
they did a lot of singing.
The cable, the huge singing cable was put in use
& Europe said to America:
Give me three million tons of cotton!
And three million tons of cotton wandered over the ocean
& turned to cloth:
cloth with which one fascinated the savages of Senegambia,
& cotton wads, with which one killed them.
Raise your voice in song, sing
on all the Senegambic trading routes!
sing cotton!

Yes, cotton, your descent on the earth like snow!
Your white peace for our dead bodies!
Your white ankle length gowns when we wander into heaven
saved in all the worlds harbours by Booths Jesus-like face.
Cotton, cotton, your snowfall:
wrapping the world in the fur of new necessities,
you shut us in, you blinded our eyes with your cloud.
At the mouth of the Trade River,
& on the wide oceans of markets & fairs,
cotton, we have met there
the laws of your flood,
the threat of your flood.

Harry Edmund Martinson (from the Swedish)

To call this a favourite poem is inaccurate, but it is a salutary reminder that cotton has a terrible history (though Martinson even seems wrong about that, since the cotton trade existed long before the transatlantic cable)

The present day fad for believing that cotton is somehow superior to man made fabrics & ,above all, green infuriates me

The production process is far from benign

It retains water, including sweat, thus making it uncomfortable to wear in hot, humid, close conditions (including inside shoes)

It takes an age to dry – an especially un-green aspect for those who, despite their green credentials, use tumble driers, & is much more difficult to iron than is poly-cotton

I once rather hesitantly expressed my support of poly-cotton to a rather grand old lady – expecting my head to get bitten off by one who demanded linen or Egyptian cotton sheets. ‘Well of course,’ she said, ‘Who would dream of pure cotton sheets these days? To let you into a secret, I even wait to iron mine until they are on the bed’

A really good tip, which grows even more useful as one grows older

Friday, September 12, 2008

Trust the jury

“Another defendant, described as a shadowy figure with terrorist connections, was acquitted of all charges & cannot be retried”

When you see a sentence like that on the front page of the august Times newspaper, you know that somebody, somewhere has lost their head

The sad thing is that it is always easy to see in historical retrospect, where governments over-reacted to ‘the threat of terror’. And thereby often succeed only in prolonging the agony

Living through this particular agony, it is also easy to see why governments can be almost forced in to reacting like this

So thank heavens for the British jury

Sweetcorn is not green

Despite my resolutely sceptical view of all things Green, I am going to start a campaign under the Green banner

Ban sweetcorn!

Or at least put strict limits on its use. Introduce quotas. Must be clearly labelled as an ingredient of any sandwich, ready meal, salad or restaurant dish which contains it. Sweetcorn-free versions must always be available

I do not hate sweetcorn – even the tinned kind, for which I have a great rice salad recipe, ideal for summer. Sweetcorn fritters make a perfect accompaniment to fried chicken. And corn on the cob with butter is one of those sinful foods best eaten only in the company of your nearest & dearest – and even then only if you are in a position to cut the cobs on a sunny day & plunge them straight away for the minimum necessary time into boiling water

But it is a sin to scatter a few tough little yellow bits indiscriminately through almost everything else (especially tuna sandwiches)

Yesterday a perfectly nice, fresh, crisp green salad with tomatoes & red onion was ruined by the addition of these things. I scrupulously pushed them to the side of the plate as I found them – in total a measly teaspoonful, but still hard work

The reason for hitching this to the Green bandwagon? They block up the sewers & the sewage farms, necessitating special cleaning & disposal

So they cannot even provide much nutritional value

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Words ending in –ess

Is success the feminine form of successor?

Rust in physics

The title of this post is a typing error, but I couldn’t resist leaving it uncorrected!

Listening to one of the Radio 4 programmes yesterday about the Large Hadron Collider I began to understand for the first time the sheer scale of the data analysis involved. If they are to find the higgs bosun they will have to be able to pick it out of heaven knows how many particle observations (excuse me if my jargon is awry)

So how can we lesser mortals believe it if they say they have found it? It sounds to me as if it will be hard to be sure they have not just misinterpreted an error term

Then I remembered this:

Particle physicists construct their own detectors, tinker with them constantly, adjust them & even rebuild them for new experiments. Hence it is exceptionally difficult to check the results of an experiment, & there is no alternative to judgement in determining how much faith to place in any particular report

Theodore Porter: Trust in Numbers

Ultimately, none of us can do other than rely on trust of course
But it strikes me that trust could be an important part of the reason why it is so difficult for a woman to reach the top in academic physics, if she wants also to have a family

A young woman who is just reaching the post doc stage was talking about this on Womans Hour yesterday

There is the obvious difficulty at that stage of short term contracts & needing to move a lot

Plus, should you decide to try a career break, you risk getting out of touch with a fast moving field

But you also put a rupture in all those connections - of personal contact, working with others, publication etc - which form the bonds of trust

Teetering piles

There is now a pile of 16 books by my bed, ‘rescued’ from the library. There were 2 more, but I have left the Delderfield & Jerome K Jerome in places where the finder may get some amusement from them. Others will meet the same fate when I am done with them

So far my total outlay is less than it would be for 1 new paperback

Half are books of poetry – obviously a massive clearance going on there

Others are old essays or memoirs: Virginia Woolf, Sydney Smith, GK Chesterton

Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners which, I fear, may bring more tears than laughter on re-reading 40 years on

And – The Complete Works of Charles & Mary Lamb (1908 2 vol edition)

Mobility aid

I was able to get out & about much more than I expected during the recent contretemps after I realised that it is very easy to move around in Stockport by bus: down to the end of the shopping centre for Borders, Asda or Sainsburys, up the hill to the library

I may probably never have thought of this if it were not for the bus pass. This is not just miserliness on my part. As a long term user of buses even when I had to pay I know that any short journey in town is almost always quicker on foot, & anyway I like walking. Stockport is just the right size of town for walking around, in normal circumstances

I felt a (very slight) twinge of guilt that some of this comfort was financed by the good council tax payers of Stockport. But then I remember that my council tax helps finance their days out in the country


Lexus & Amber Conway are identical twins who are less than 2 weeks old

They were born 65 minutes apart

But Amber’s date of birth is 31st August; for Lexus it is 1st September

The midwives alerted the parents to the fact that the twins are therefore born a year apart, in school terms

The parents asked the doctors to ‘fudge’ the paperwork; they could not

It is intriguing that midwives are so alert to this ‘problem.’ Perhaps they just want to take their own holidays in August

Or is there just no flexibility in state education in these days of SATS & league tables?

I hope somebody will be allowed to use their common sense as the girls progress through the system or the problem will presumably recur at 7, 11, 14, 16 and 18

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Double duchess

Talking of political hostesses I should really like to see a modern biography of one of Georgiana’s successors - the wife of the 8th Duke of Devonshire

Countess Louise Friederike Auguste von Alten was born in 1832 in Hanover. A great beauty & wit, she married the Duke of Manchester & cut a swathe through English political society

I first came across her through a volume of her correspondence with Lord Clarendon, the great Liberal Foreign Secretary, with whom she had a close & gossipy relationship, though she was a convinced Tory

I came across her again in The Diaries of Lady Frederick Cavendish, though I did not realise it because her connection with the family was never mentioned

Lord & Lady Frederick were unable to have children. Their sadness was added to, in some small way, because any son of theirs would have been heir presumptive to the dukedom of Devonshire since Lord Frederick’s brother Spencer, the eldest son, showed no sign of marrying & settling down

Reading this at the turn of the 21st century I leaped to the obvious, but erroneous, conclusion of our age

Imagine my surprise therefore when one day, in the quietness of the library, I was checking for an obituary in The Illustrated London News for 1892 which also carried a major splash about the marriage of the Duchess of Manchester to the Duke of Devonshire. She had been widowed for just on 2 years, & Spencer had inherited the title just one year earlier

Although their long devoted liaison had been common knowledge, (hence Lady Frederick’s certainty that her brother-in-law would never produce an heir), there was no adverse press comment on their marriage except for the fact that neither had told family in advance. They simply slipped out one morning & got married in Hanover Square


I retain what may be a childish love of stories of heroism

So let’s hear it for Sergeant Mark Baxter of the RAF who rescued his 3 year old daughter Leona from the swollen River Wear into which she had been swept over 70 yards underground through a flooded storm drain

It is not just that he plunged in to the river, he had the nous & presence of mind to work out where to look for her & what to do to get all the water out of her while standing in the river unable to climb out because his wellies were full of water

But why on earth was a 6½ foot wide storm drain, near to a childrens play area, left uncovered? Had thieves been after the metal for scrap, thus making Leona indirectly a victim of the current global economic situation?

Sick as a parrot

Fry’s English Delight on Radio 4 this week gave an origin for the phrase sick as a parrot. I have already forgotten what it was – something to do with Tottenham Hotspur & Arsenal I think

However it did remind me of one of those niggling questions to which I should l like to know the answer

It must have been in the late 1970s. I was reading a summary of items in the European media about environmental pollution. One was about an incident in a small town in Germany involving a leakage of something a bit nasty. A nearby resident was interviewed & quoted as saying I felt as sick as a parrot

The summary was a translation, I did not have the original & my German is nonexistent anyway. But I still wonder whether the phrase could possibly have German origin, or if the translator was just using a bit of colloquial licence, or if it was just an example of the universal language of football

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Parallel universes

We do not need the Large Hadron Collider to prove whether or not there are parallel universes

Sarah Palin & Hilary Clinton have done the job all by themselves

Political society

One critic did not like the film about Georgiana because it does not do enough to show the important role of women as political hostesses in that age

The role of the political hostess remained important throughout the 19th century, & not just in the great houses of Westminster & Mayfair; played well, it gave a woman a great deal of influence

As ever, one gets some of the most intriguing insights from the works of the less famous, who perhaps have the advantage of being more observer than participant in high politics

One such was the 1st Earl Midleton who wrote his memoirs, Records & Reflections, in 1939:

Until the 1880s leading hostesses entertained political supporters on Wednesday & Saturday evenings at much-sought-after dinner-parties, & the ministry did not live in a ring-fence. I had seen so many budding difficulties checked in this way

The motor car changed political society:

The greater latitude of life has many advantages. Anyone who is bored in London can arrange his weekend a few hours in advance by telephone, & arrive by motor without troubling his host for conveyance. 50 years ago there were no such facilities & no one, unless a recluse by nature, would have cut himself off from all contact with the world outside politics by refusing a formal invitation 6 weeks ahead, & condemning himself to a horrid Sunday in London

But then:

Because of Ireland & Home Rule, for a long period after 1885 leaders of the Liberal Party were not welcomed at social gatherings in Conservative houses

You get the feeling that political socialising has never really been the same since. Of course life has changed completely, MPs are no longer drawn from the same narrow social group, &, not least, the role of women has changed

There may be all sorts of cross party groupings in the House of Commons & many good personal friendships, but somehow you cannot imagine Alistair Darling greeting George Osborne enthusiastically at some grand evening party

There seem to be some who object to even reading what the other side has to say for itself

This is madness, for the first rule of any battle is: Know thine enemy


Cross-party social whirl evokes life a century ago

The Bush years have accelerated another trend in Washington – the increasing polarisation of the city’s social life along partisan lines. Social contact between the two parties – a powerful political lubricant – has been reduced dramatically - Martin Fletcher Times 5/11/08

Orissa Christians

Another great photograph form The Times (Bishwaranjan/AP)

I hope it is not insulting to the photographer (or to photography) to say that it could be a painting

You imagine you can see the brush strokes of an Old Master in its composition & subject

Or a modern abstract in its rectangular blocks of colour

And like so many great paintings, it tells of tragedy. In this case, religious conflict in Orissa

Related post: Walls have soul

Monday, September 08, 2008

Team sports

Much discussion about school sports again: not enough/too much. Inculcates the habit of life-long exercise/just puts people off for life. Competition good/bad for children

Although I am definitely not a sporty person & going to the gym is my idea of hell, I look back to school sports & PE with a fair degree of affection

We had 2 sessions (30 or 40 minutes) in the gym plus one afternoon of outdoor sport each week. One of the gym sessions was given over to dancing – either ballroom, Scottish or English country.

I loathed the winter games of hockey with a passion. But summer term – athletics or tennis – were enjoyable enough

We still had a house system at school. This seems to me like a pretty good way of letting children mix with those outside their own year group, valuable even in what was by today’s standards an unfeasibly small school, & still more reassuring for children in today’s monster institutions

We had all sorts of house competitions – music, drama etc. But the way it operated for Sports Day seems to me to be a good model even for today

We had a system called standards – a bit like Olympic qualifying but less onerous. They were not so easy that even the worst duffer could pass the standard in everything, but those who could not run might have a chance at the long jump or throwing the discus.

The top 2 in each discipline represented the house on Sports Day, but if you passed the standard you earned a point for your house, & so everybody could make some contribution to the overall result

Boys games

It was, I suppose, inevitable that some should make comparisons between Palin & Thatcher. Both after all came to their position somewhat unexpectedly, & both are seen as heroines of the right

The comparison pretty much ends there, though it is interesting to see how a new generation of liberal or leftish women cope with their feelings of wanting to support, in some sense, someone whose politics they do not share, just because she is a woman

Mrs Thatcher was however anything but an instant heroine. The main reactions, as I remember them, were an unpleasant mixture of sexism & snobbishness, combined with a sense that by calling others bluff she had won election as leader of the Conservatives in a way that was somehow not quite cricket. And that was just from those in her own party

It was not until after the Falklands that she achieved her heroine status – until then it was widely believed that the Conservatives could not possibly win the next election

When Parliament was recalled to sit on a Saturday morning to discuss the reaction to the invasion of South Georgia Enoch Powell said (I quote from memory)

The Prime Minister relishes the sobriquet of the Iron Lady
But I warn her that
By her actions on this day
We shall know
Of what metal she is wrought

I can still feel myself, in the middle of ironing, standing transfixed with a shiver down my spine

And I have often wondered since if Mrs Thatcher was, in one sense, forced to go to war to prove that she was not just a weak & feeble woman, & if President Regan’s somewhat indulgent reaction was not also prompted by thoughts of letting the little woman join in & see what it was like to play with the big boys

Before science

I remain cautious about cooking cassava, because I am never certain that I can recognise the difference between the sweet & bitter kind. The bitter one contains prussic acid, & is thus poisonous. Unless, as the Amerindians discovered, it is thoroughly boiled for about an hour. I wonder who was the first volunteer for this experiment?

I might be less fearful of the vegetable in my inexpert hands, now I know of an antidote

BITTER CASSAVA: The aqueous part is expressed … By the inattention of the Slaves, this juice, when expressed, is frequently drank by the sheep, hogs & poultry, on the Plantations, which ever proves fatal to them: yet the animals thus poisoned, are always eaten by the inhabitants

… The best antidotes that have hitherto been discovered against the poisonous effects of the cassava in its crude state are red pepper & rum, taken immediately

Believe what you want (2)

"With the smoking ban yielding 400,000 ex-smokers since it came into force a year ago …." Hilly Janes, editor, Times Body & Soul, 6 September 2008, p2

Since the ban (from July 1, 2007), more than 200,000 smokers have kicked the habit …. Sir Liam Donaldson’s claim to fame, Times Body & Soul, 6 September 2008, p6

Related post: Believe what you want

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Where have all the men/women gone?

Contradictory stories coming out of Australia recently

One part trying to encourage ugly women to move in to town because of a surplus of lonely men

Another part of the country suffering from a man drought, as all eligible men flee to more exciting climes

Actually the population figures look quite ordinary. 105 boys born for every 100 girls. Men retain their majority until retirement age, when lonely widows predominate

Result – a slight majority for women as a whole

As is the case for pretty much every country in the world, except India & China

Still, that’s not news, is it

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Heavenly music

“Jacques Brel does something to peoples souls. That sounds almost religious!”

So said Alastair Campbell, who does not ‘do’ God, on Radio 4 this Saturday morning

Our number

I love this poem because it is good, so poignant it squeezes the heart

It reminds me of long ago evenings, sitting on the sea wall watching the shrimp boats setting out on their nightly trawl, under an arching sky. Why does the southern sky seem so much higher, the stars so much further away?

And then it also reminds me of Eric Cantona’s stirring denunciation of the scavengers of the press

The pins of the slack pin seine
irregular the horizon; the tide
has gone them bare. A most disturbed
seagull proportions a catch. The fisherman’s
wife, another seagull, leans on the sky
counting shrimp.

Surrendering ourselves
we denizen an epoch of abuse
trying to defy with the seagull’s
or seawife’s similar desperation
the tide that naked skins us.
Shrimp is our number. Is so
we stay. Is a way
of counting born we.

Martin Carter

Friday, September 05, 2008

Quetelet would be interested

Danish investigators have found they can estimate your date of birth with a high degree of accuracy by subjecting protein from the lens of your eye to radio carbon dating

The transparent proteins, crystallins, remain essentially unchanged for the rest of our lives. Thus they provide a record of the environment we spent our first days in – including the type of radiation

1945-1960 nuclear bomb tests meant the quantity of C-14 in the atmosphere doubled. Since 1960 it has slowly decreased to natural levels

The fallout got into the food chain & into our crystallins. These proteins reflect the content of C-14 present in the atmosphere at the time of their creation, shortly after birth.

So there is no point lying about your age – at least if you were born during the years of variation

Related posts:

Bus pass minutiae

Overheard an 80 year old lady extolling the wonders of the new bus pass by recounting the detail of a trip she had made with a friend: And then we had to get on the tram to go to ….

Oh, said her friend, but isn’t yours a Derbyshire pass?

Our passes are valid only for buses in Manchester; we do not share the added benefit of free travel on trams & local trains which local residents get

The couple on the bus ended up by deciding that since the name of the local authority is writ quite small on the pass, “It must be difficult to see, so best not to point it out

Actually it is a bit more complicated than that. Our passes used to be Derbyshire passes, but now they carry just the name of the district council (something to do with the new funding arrangements). Manchester passes are issued to residents of the whole of Greater Manchester (the Metropolitan County as was, before Mrs Thatcher abolished it along with the GLC); I have not examined one closely, but if they are labelled only with the name of the district, then tram & train operators who need to inspect them would need to be not only keen-sighted but also to have a very secure knowledge of the names of all the districts which make up Greater Manchester

Mutual understanding

Mark Bennet was the subject of an interesting edition of I Was a Child Prodigy on Radio 4 this week

He was a seriously good mathematician who abandoned an academic career & is now an Anglican priest

One of the reasons he gave for the switch was that the further you go into the world of mathematical ideas, the less you are able to talk to, or communicate with, other people

One of the people who spoke briefly on the programme was a contemporary at Cambridge who has since won the Fielding medal. I don’t know if he is the one I remember reading an interview with at the time. That person made much the same point – he could not even discuss his work with his wife, a fellow mathematician but in a different branch of the subject

There is often a feeling that those who are able to live in the world of mathematical imagination have much in common with those on the autistic spectrum. I do not know enough about this to comment, except to say that one of the signs of autism is supposedly an inability to recognise how others are feeling.

It must be just as difficult to understand how other people think

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Radio Marmite

John Humphrys must be the Marmite of Radio 4 – you either love him or hate him

I belong to the latter school

As soon as I no longer had a sort of professional reason for listening to the Today programme, I stopped

I used to like Radio 5 in the mornings, but then they brought in N Campbell. (Just as women over 40 should stop wearing their hair long & loose – before people start saying she ought to – so men over 40 should stop calling themselves Nicky. And both sexes should stop calling their Mother mummy)

Although he has his moments (asking Nick Clegg about God) & some of the banter can be good, he is generally miscast for this programme. His questions go on & on, you lose all interest by the time he stops for an answer. Any politician has seen it coming for so long that they are as prepared as The Ancient Mariner to waffle on

And I am surprised that violence has not been done, the way Campbell butts in on other people’s interviews

Imagine James Naughtie doing that to Humphrys!

Now that I have a push button radio with pre-sets, I spend my time flicking through the stations when something comes on that I cannot bear. And so it is only recently I have discovered how Radios 4 & 5 tend to cover exactly the same stories each morning. There is probably more football 0n 5 & more foreign on 4, but otherwise they are even interviewing the same people. Sometimes I switch over to hear somebody say: We are expecting to interview the Home Secretary, to which I mutter sotto voce: Yes, as soon as she has finished in the other studio

Setting the agenda for the day, indeed. I did not realise that there is literally only one

Related post: Gordon Ramsay!

Saving us from ourselves

A consultant in an NHS poisoning unit, speaking on Radio 4 the other evening, said that the limitations on the sale of paracetamol do not seem to have worked to bring about a long term reduction in the number of cases of deliberate self harm

I think I could have predicted that, although I was surprised when once I grumbled to the pharmacist about it, to hear that there had been a short term reduction

Even with the restrictions I could very easily acquire nearly 100 tablets in the space of minutes – from 2 supermarkets, 2 pharmacies & 2 newsagents in the shopping centre. If I were depressed & obsessed by thoughts of suicide I could easily build up a much larger stock – assuming I was not already aware (before this programme) of the grisly details of its effects

Which leaves the question: Even if limitations on sale brought about the slightest reduction in harm, is it be worth putting hundreds or thousands or millions of sensible, careful people to (relatively) minor, but cumulatively quite major, irritation & inconvenience?

I used to buy bottles of 100 at a very low price. I do not take very many or very often, but it does mean that there are always sufficient, sitting safely high up in the cupboard, to see us through a bout of flu or some cause of pain. The other big advantage is that you see at a glance how many are left & are constantly reminded when it is time to buy more

Blister packs are a confounded nuisance.

Expensive. Excessively packaged.

Some are very difficult to open.

Many of the rest are just the opposite – if you put a strip in your handbag the foil rubs itself off & you are left with dusty pills littering the lining

And it is easy to reach the end of your supply without realising it, to be deceived by the way that the strip still looks full. Nothing left for an emergency